The Secret to Happiness, in Three Words, According to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

I had the chance to make a quick visit to my hometown of Kansas City yesterday. There was an event at which Justice O’Connor was interviewed, along with two of her clerks — one of whom was me.

As always, I was so happy to see the Justice, and I was reminded of a conversation we had a few years ago, about happiness, so I decided to re-post this account.

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Years ago, when I was a lawyer, I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – which was one of those rare, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime work experiences. There are many reasons that I don’t regret law school and my years as a lawyer before becoming a writer, and the chance to work for Justice O’Connor is one of them.

The other day, I was on the phone with the Justice. We were talking about her terrific new site, iCivics, which teaches children about civics, and she’d also visited my website.

“I can tell you what I believe is the secret to a happy life,” she said.

“What’s that, Justice?” I asked. (Sidenote: when you speak directly to a Justice, you address him or her as “Justice” – e.g., “Justice, the cert petitions are here.” This, I always thought, must act as a frequent reminder to them about the value they are supposed to embody!) “What’s your secret?”

Work worth doing,” she answered firmly.

“What about relationships?” I asked. From what I can tell, looking at modern science and ancient philosophy, if you had to pick a single factor as the one most likely to lead to a happy life, having strong relationships would be a strong candidate. Of course, most people form a lot of strong relationships at work.

“No,” she said. “Work worth doing, that’s all you really need.”

“Can I quote you?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” she said.

Work worth doing. What do you think? Is that the one thing you need for a happy life?

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The more I’ve thought about “work worth doing,” the more I realize the brilliance of this three-word encapsulation. Because, of course, “work” can mean so many different things, to different people; and for us to do work that’s “worth doing” means that we must choose work that reflects our values. If you feel that your work is pointless, well, that’s not good. And most of us have many kinds of work: work-work, and relationships-work, and self-work, for instance.

Agree, disagree?

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